One of Canadian horse racing’s greatest jockeys has passed away; Don Seymour loved family, friends and fast and wonderful racehorses.
In those agonizing minutes following the 1989 Queen’s Plate while stewards examined the very close win photo, jockey Don Seymour and his big grey colt With Approval jogged circles on the Woodbine backstretch. Her Majesty The Queen Mother was looking on. Donnie’s new clients Bud and David Willmot of Kinghaven Farms had fingers crossed. Donnie played it cool, he had a good feeling.
And there it was, With Approval’s number flashed up as the Plate winner, the first monumental racing event in Donnie’s life that would lead him into Canadian horse racing record books.
With Approval and his rider-buddy went on to win the Canadian Triple Crown, the first horse to do so since 1963. Incredibly, a year later, Donnie was aboard another brilliant Kinghaven Farms colt, Izvestia, and they powered through a Triple Crown sweep.
In those years of riding for the Willmot family, Donnie was an integral part of the development of dozens of champions trained by Roger Attfield. He was there in the mornings and in the afternoon. He took the track staff out to dinners and he greeted everyone with his cheery-cheeked smile.
He was a top rider before he signed on with Kinghaven in 1987, beginning his career in Alberta at Northlands and Stampede Park before moving his tack and his young family to Ontario in November of 1982. He was riding a lot for Sam-Son Farms, Kinghaven Farms’ rival powerhouse stable, before the Willmots and Attfield signed him on.
Donnie became know as one of the most patient riders Woodbine had ever seen; many compared him to American champion Pat Day. He had a knack for waiting, and then waiting some more, before he asked his horses for their best. He would leave the Kinghaven Farms team pulling out hair at times, but his graceful style and light hands were magical.
Donnie would tell you that the Triple Crown sweeps in back-to-back years (and there was a $5 million bonus back them for a Triple Crown sweep) were his rides of a lifetime, positioned just behind the birth of his four children with wife Kathleen – DJ, Michael, Christopher and Kandice – in his life’s moments.
I remember one other time during my own tenure at Kinghaven. It was 1988 at Churchill Downs on a rainy, muddy and miserable day at the Breeders’ Cup. Kinghaven sent down their top sprinter Play the King, a 40-to-1 outsider, to try the Breeders’ Cup Sprint against the likes of the brilliant Canadian-bred Afleet and American colt Gulch.
Donnie and ‘The King’ were right there turning for home, threatening to grab the lead in front of 100,000 fans. Riding and pushing the King for all he was worth (to the point his helmet cover went flying off in the stretch to land in the muck), the King just about pulled ahead before Gulch charged by in the final yards.
When they came back to be unsaddled and Donnie dismounted, he was white as a ghost, easy to see since it was such a stormy day. “Oh my god, I thought I was going to win it.”
There were many memorable stretch runs, stakes wins and awards for Donnie. One his favourite guys was Steady Power (Scooter), a nondescript gelding who outran his wiry looks to be a millionaire, finishing a close second in the Canadian International.
There were tough times too, most significantly a horrific car crash in 1991 that was nearly fatal. The life of a jockey meant reducing and health issues caught up to him. He was just 34 when he retired from riding following the Breeders’ Stakes in 1994.
He joined the ‘press box’ family soon after, working as a clocker in the morning and the placing judge in the afternoons. He was always up for chats between races; he missed riding but he didn’t miss the reducing, he loved the races and was excited about watching his kids grow up.
Sadly, Donnie suffered a stroke one morning as he skipped across the street to grab his favourite Tim Horton’s coffee, hindering his speech and mobility. It didn’t stop him from coming to the track, however. Remarried to Margaret Baston, Donnie visited the press box and his steward friends and former jockey pals a few times a year. He remembered everyone and he was doing that smiling thing all the time. He chatted as much as he could and he did recover his mobility quite a lot over the years. He was there when his kids grew up and had families of their own.
In recent years, Donnie separated from Margaret and went to live with his brother Terry who lived in Barrie. Two close friends, Joe and Leslie Broughton, who have as many fun Donnie stories as anyone, were told Donnie was not well this past February, suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He battled back from that but on Friday June 26 at home with all of his family, including his mother Mary, at his side, Donnie passed away.
Numbers are just numbers when a friend is gone but his accomplishments doing what he loved to do must be mentioned. He won four Sovereign awards, rode over 2,100 winners, was presented the Avelino Gomez Award and in 1995 was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.
Trainer Mike Keogh, assistant to Attfield during the hey-day years of Kinghaven, was one of dozens writing in after hearing the news of Donnie’s passing.
“Rest well my friend; lovely guy, great rider”
A family man and a friend to many who will always have fond memories of that special smile